2017: Dates to circle

Changing of the guard

This year marks the 50th anniversary of national service. Chong Zi Liang looks back on five decades of inter-generational changing of the guard, from a 'front-line' perspective - his penultimate in-camp training stint.

Reservist training is not something I usually look forward to, but I was secretly thrilled when I received my annual call-up last year.

My unit was headed to Taiwan, where I had spent a month training during my days as a full-time national serviceman (NSF) just over a decade ago, for 11 days.

Given that this was to be my second-last in-camp training, it seemed like a poetic way for my army life to come full circle.

When we finally shipped off and arrived at our destination in southern Taiwan, the military camp was instantly recognisable.

I had last set foot here a few months shy of turning 20. Now I am almost a year into my 30s, and the squat, spartan buildings arranged around a tarmac square looked exactly the way I remembered.

The living quarters hadn't changed a single bit either. There were still no lockers, usually found in all barracks in Singapore. And the dormitories were still filled with rows of double-deck beds crammed close together, leaving only narrow passageways strewn with our duffel bags.


Besides serving a primary purpose of defending the nation, NS has evolved to take on greater meaning and is seen as an important rite of passage for Singaporean males. ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

As a teenage full-time soldier, I had found the conditions a step down from my bunk in Singapore, though still adequate. But it was a whole other story now as a working adult used to certain creature comforts.

I wasn't the only one finding our circumstances a challenge. Someone forgot to bring a towel, having never had to pack one for all his business trips overseas. And since there were no attached ladders to our beds, it was a minor miracle that none of us - approaching middle age and with developing pot bellies to prove it - fell while clambering up and down.

I will always find it amazing how a bunch of men can report for duty as strangers, share some of the most intimate details of their lives over a few weeks and then go back to being strangers once their time is served.

We were in Taiwan - one of several places including Australia and Thailand where land-scarce Singapore conducts overseas training - together with a full-time battalion and our mission was to play the role of enemy forces during one of their exercises.

Sharing the camp with the young ones gave us older national servicemen (NSmen) a chance to observe them up close.

They were lean and fit, and generally well-disciplined, marching in neat columns whenever moving about the camp in numbers. One of my friends noted simply: "They look like soldiers."

Just about the only flaw I could spot was a penchant for leaving stray bits of food at the water cooler whenever they went to get hot water for their instant noodles.

But other than that, they hardly gave us a chance to point and mutter, "Kids nowadays..." before shaking our heads and recounting how much harder we had it in our day.

No, our age gap was emphasised in other, more personally humbling ways. My friend and I were wandering around the small military compound and came across a set of chin-up bars. We had served together as NSFs and could crank out at least 12 chin-ups easily - back then.

On the spur of the moment, we decided to do a few chin-ups for old times' sake. But then, we spotted some NSFs spying on us from a corner.

Not wanting to lose face while they were watching, we unwisely pushed ourselves and finally struggled to a grand total of eight chin-ups each.

We nursed a neck ache for days.

THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS

Once out in the field, a bunch of NSFs were assigned to us as drivers. At times, we regarded each other as strange specimens from an alien world.

We marvelled at their ability to fall asleep at the drop of a hat. No pocket of time was too short for them to find a shaded spot, lie down and instantly be in deep slumber.

We, on the other hand, tossed and turned endlessly, swatting at bugs and trying to find a comfortable position, finally drifting to sleep before being jolted awake almost immediately by the loud snores of our buddy.

The NSFs, in turn, seemed to find pleasure in comparing our different life stages. After I told one that I had enlisted in 2004, he exchanged a stunned look with his friend and informed me that he had just started primary school back then.

Facepalm moments aside, this trip turned out to be one of my most positive reservist stints.

Usually, people drag their feet when there is work to be done. Or someone comes down with a mysterious ailment just before we head off to the jungle.

But this time, everyone pulled their weight. The equipment was moved quickly, the area cleaning was done efficiently, and there was definitely much less of the sense that people were trying to lie low to avoid responsibility.

Perhaps it was because everyone knew we were nearing the end of our time in uniform. And since every task that we performed might well be the final time we went through with it, we might as well give it our best shot.

Unable to sleep out in the field at night, we spent hours chatting about our work and families, and cracking nonsensical jokes. I will always find it amazing how a bunch of men can report for duty as strangers, share some of the most intimate details of their lives over a few weeks and then go back to being strangers once their time is served.

We also got to play soldier one last time, engaging the NSFs in mock gunfights as part of their training. The boys were tough, manoeuvring about with youthful vigour.

OPERATIONALLY READY

Later, many of us admitted that these young soldiers were impressive and we were glad that they would be the ones protecting the country from now on.

I was reminded of these NSFs when I realised that Singapore will mark the 50th anniversary of national service (NS) this year.

The essence of NS has been 50 years of an inter-generational changing of the guard, as one soldier hangs up his uniform for good, while another steps up to bear arms in his place.

Today, NS enjoys widespread support among the population, but it was not always so. When NS was made compulsory in 1967, several anti-NS protests sprang up, with the largest attracting 300 demonstrators.

Now, the institution - besides serving a primary purpose of defending the nation - has evolved to take on greater meaning and is seen as an important rite of passage for Singaporean males.

I am fortunate to have had a meaningful experience during my final stage of NS and even though there have been bumps along the way, I am glad to have been a part of this journey.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 08, 2017, with the headline 'Changing of the guard'. Print Edition | Subscribe